China - Guilin and Yangshuo
Last Updated: 13-May-03
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21 Oct - Off to the Strange and Beautiful
No longer part of the group, I got to eat breakfast at the Landmark hotel's real restaurant, which was much better than that which was served to the group.
Since I had to cut the trip short, but still could not get out of China immediately, I decided to fly to Guilin, site of the limestone peaks, famous in Chinese painting and poetry, and images worldwide. I was unable to book a hotel directly (since it is high season), so I went the route of booking a package, this time as an individual, rather than as part of a group. More expensive, but more flexibility, and probably the best way to get an introduction to the area.
Thanks to the rain, the air over Beijing was clear, and I had a great view of the countryside. There was snow on nearby mountains. The farmland was densely populated, with stretches of farms interspersed with crowded villages. We also flew over the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. As we landed in Guilin, I got my first view of the limestone peaks marching off into the distance.
My Guilin guide, Mr. Young, met me at the airport. He is originally from Chongqing, and has been a guide for 4 years. He is 26 years old, not married, but has a girlfriend). Our driver is Mr. Zhang.
We stopped at the Reed Flute Cave which is one of many caves in the karst. It gets over 600,000 visitors per year, 60% of whom are Chinese. It looks like a typical limestone cave, with stalactites, stalagmites, columns, ribbons, and so on. However, it is very touristed - it is lit with garish colors (with magnetic switches placed for the guides to turn the lights on and off), has been flooded with artificial reflecting pools, and has insensitive crowds who touch everything, so it is full of dead & broken limestone. People spit on the floor. The cave has been known for some time, and has been used for hiding from various wars and purges. The cave was opened for tourism in 1962. The place is disgusting.
Before heading to my hotel, we stopped at the requisite pearl factory, this one from Heifei. They harvest South Sea pearls, which they claim are purer & stronger. I asked if the 40% of non-Chinese tourists (from the Reed Flute Cave) go through this factory. (Since the Chinese go to the Jade and Crystal factories).
There has been much construction in Guilin over last 2 years as they develop the tourism industry. They anticipate a significant flood with the 2008 Olympics. My room in the Osmanthus hotel overlooked the Lijiang river and the limestone peaks.
I walked 3 km to the central square around the clock tower. Along the river, just outside the hotel were many shoe repair and shine stalls - people working hard trying to make a yuan. The central area had lots of shops and casual strollers. And lots of spitting, which seems to be a national sport. I got some steaming chestnuts to eat and warm my hands. Booths were set up along main street (Zhongshan) with tea, candy, paintings (with the required bald artist with a goatee), pirate CDs, and tourist trinkets. I ate at a Sichuan restaurant recommended by Young, and he gave me the Chinese for extra hot (Fei chang lá). They laughed, and put in lots of chile oil. Unfortunately, that made it oily, not hot…with spice, if you have a six (on a scale of one to ten), and you add more six, you don't get up to seven. Instead you just have lots of six. (Local beer, rice, sautéed pork with vegetables) Many people out strolling, and I can always tell where I am by the rolling wave of "Hello."
I walked along the river near the Elephant Rock, where there were many places with stacked cages. Inside the cages sat rabbits, pheasants, jungle rats, snakes, and various other animals, fish, and crustaceans. One had a log full of fat white grubs. Each of these places was just outside of a restaurant. Too bad I had already eaten.
22 October - Up the River
The Li River boat dock is about one hour outside of Guilin, so we joined the procession of buses, taxis, and cars to the foreigner dock. (The Chinese - with a cheaper fare - go to another dock.) A mass of people (mostly French and Germans) poured onto the many boats. Each boat is set up with tables and chairs for about 120 passengers, plus a separate table for the tourguides.
The boats pulled out into the river, forming a convoy (regatta? gaggle?).
One particularly famous peak is the Nine-Horse Cliff. It has exposed limestone faces which are said to resemble horses, nine of them. In the time that it takes to pass the cliff, one is supposed to try to identify all nine. The average is four, and it is said that someone who can see all nine is a genius, and will place highly in education placement tests.
Every once in a while, our boat blew its horn, making us all jump. I rushed downstairs for the lunch, reminiscent of the food on the rest of my trip. Some people had decided not to eat, having heard rumors of people who had gotten sick. So what if the cooks washed dishes in the river? After choking something down (with two beers each), I ran back above deck. The amazing scenery continued to unfold, eventually giving way to a flatter portion, terraced with farms for rice, pomello (a local specialty), banana, persimmon, orange, and sugar cane. The rain also began to clear. Perfect timing.
Eventually, we pulled into Yangshuo, a small town right in the midst of the karst. Most tourists just hop onto buses and drive an hour back to Guilin, but I was staying for the night (and I wish that it would have been five).
I dropped stuff at the Li River Hotel, and found a bike guide, Miki. She took me off into the countryside, on progressively smaller roads, until we rode on a rocky, muddy path. (And the bike's seat was not that great, and mine is insufficiently padded.) People along the way yelled "hello," and the old farmers, in particular, yelled worse things, which, of course, I did not understand. Miki translated one old woman to whom I said "Ni hao" (hello). She basically had said that because I was not a farmer, I was a bad person. I stopped periodically to shoot. Somehow, at all the best spots, there were people working or sitting, and they just happened to have post cards, peanuts, or something else to try to sell me. At one place, a bent old woman was leading a water buffalo, and they both shuffled over to get their picture taken. Within a minute, about 8 people showed up from nowhere, and then they all started demanding money, of course. Now I know that this is not particularly PC, but having these old, tightly wrinkled people clawing at me and shouting things which I did not understand was a little spooky. I did pay some of them, but my small bills ran out, so I had to run out as well. Miki just stood by and watched - I had gotten myself into my own trouble.
Once I freed myself, Miki took me past a peak which looks like a camel, and past the moon hill, as well as many other named hills, and countless unnamed ones. We then went to her village, and to her house, where I met her husband and her shy daughter Elena. I had an orange from Miki's husband's farm collective, and some tea. She lives in a small cluster of houses with 15 relatives - her husband is one of four brothers. Then, Dad came in and tried to sell me postcards. It seemed like the right thing to do. Miki also offered to cook lunch, but since I was not that hungry, I declined. We then rode about 30 minutes along the highway back into Yanshou. Not bad for about $12.
I strolled around the town for a while. There is a gentle tourist street, rich in souvenirs, but lacking aggressive sellers. Instead, they were friendly, and not pushy. The crowd is from all over, ranging from local Chinese, Japanese, and Westerners (with a tendency towards French and Germans). Eventually, I stopped into Susana's restaurant, where I had a hot pot with veggies, tofu, chicken, pork, beef, and rat. I pulled out my Chinese (Fei chang ma la) to convince them I wanted it very hot. They certainly did a better job than the night before - it was spicy and tasty. (Just not hot enough, of course.) The waitress Ping Ping sat with me to talk and practice her English, amazed that a non-Chinese likes it hot. She said that it was a first for the restaurant.
22 Oct - Confusing the Locals
I have finally escaped the Western breakfast buffet! That is not to say that it was great, or all that different, but it certainly did not conform to what I have learned is the four-star formula:
After breakfast, Young and Zhong arrived to pick me up, but I first had to go retrieve the custom T-shirt I had bought the night before - Chinese characters which say "Here comes the foreign devil."
- A selection of breads
- Rice gruel
- Steam table of scrambled eggs, sausage or bacon, broiled tomatoes, bok choy in white sauce, French toast or pancakes
- Salad of little pear tomatoes and sliced cucumbers, and maybe some questionable lettuce
- One fruit salad
- Sliced watermelon and cantaloupe, and maybe lychees
- Cereal: corn flakes, rice crispies, and bran
- Orange juice (and maybe another type, like apple, tomato, or cucumber)
- A guy frying eggs as you want it
- Bad coffee service
We drove to a tourist trap, Shangri-la, Taiwanese investors developed the park around a small 200-year-old village next to a small artificial lake. We (about 10 Chinese tourists and I) got into a small flat-bottomed boat. Our boat guide was dressed in a "traditional" costume with a "traditional" microphone. Just like the San Diego Zoo's crocodile ride, it loops around, revealing exciting discoveries at every turn. OK, well, there are a few "traditional" buildings where girls in "traditional" costume of one of the four minorities stop their knitting, reading, or whatever, and dance for thirty seconds to a beating drum as the boat approaches. We float through a cave, and come out into the ancient world, where the native boys and girls in ancient "traditional" rayon animal skins and "traditional" pantyhose dance to a "traditional" drum beat. (I thought that I recognized a few of them from the "traditional" disco in Yangshuo the night before.) The set was decorated as connected grass huts, with the skulls of foreign devils hanging on each post. Since they actually are a minority people, they do have darker skin color (or so I'm told), and are considered to be very beautiful. The most beautiful girl serenaded us as we drove past. I raised some questions which were bothering me: How did they decide that she was the most beautiful? Was it a vote? If so, who voted? What happens if a new, younger beauty comes along? If the most beautiful girl is the one with the darkest skin (which I'm told might be the case), then what happens if one gets a suntan? Needless to say, I could not get these questions answered. As we floated further, we saw women doing "traditional" clothes washing in the lake, dressed in "traditional" Hello Kitty sweaters and using "traditional" plastic buckets. Next to a stone bridge, we saw a man washing a "traditional" plucked chicken in the lake. After all this excitement, we landed at a "traditional" 2-story building where we were greeted by some of the earlier "traditionally-dressed" girls, who will stomp on your feet if they like you. (You are allowed to return this expression of fancy.) Apparently, no one liked me. The construction of the buildings was actually pretty cool, without nails, and designed to attract swallows to nest in the eaves (of which I saw none). The whole experience would have been a waste, if it were not for the amazing hills surrounding Shangri-La and my self-amused cynicism.
As we drove back towards Guilin, I requested that we drive onto a side road into the middle of the hills. After an attempt to dissuade me, and warnings about narrowness of the road, we turned around (where I got to watch a live dog being placed into a sack) and headed off to the West, through rice and sugar cane. I made what I hope are some great 360-degree photos sets, and Young stated that he had always wanted to drive into the hills, but had never had the chance. Hey, what's a private car for anyway? The best part was that there were no picturesque farmers milling around on this random road waiting to be paid for photo ops.
In Guilin, we drove to the Guilin Palace Hotel for lunch. Reminiscent of the China Focus tour, I was presented with a large array of Westernized Chinese dishes, just without the turntable. Young went off to another table, saying that he only gets a simple "work" lunch. I told him that I rather have that, too, or even just some noodles on the street, but I was stuck with my place. It was not bad, and the water chestnut egg roll was actually really good.
Next we were off to one of the town's centerpieces, the elephant rock. Legend has it that an elephant invaded the area where the two rivers join, and battled with one of the gods over the farmlands. The god tricked the elephant to drink from the Li Jiang, and then stabbed it (the pagoda on the top looks like a sword hilt). The elephant died with his trunk drinking from the river, and was eventually petrified. The cave formed by his trunk and body is called the water moon cave, which, with its reflection, forms a full moon at night. Ancient engravings in the stone contain poems and descriptions dating back to the Song dynasty. The area has been made into a tourist park, complete with girls in "traditional" costumes to pose for photographs (for 5 Yuan).
Guilin's most famous peak is Solitary Peak, which was the site of a local emperor's palace built during the Ming dynasty. Like many old palaces, it was burned down and rebuilt several times, the last one during the revolt which ended the Qing dynasty in the early 1900s. It was rebuilt as an education center, and is now a campus of the Guilin Normal University. Two departments reside there: art and history. The art department creates the definitive paintings of the limestone peaks, so I went to take a look, but nothing affordable grabbed my fancy. Young and I climbed the 306 steps up Solitary Peak to get a wonderful view of the whole Guilin plain. The shop at the top also tried to sell me postcards.
It was now time to head off to the airport. It's only four years old, and is ready for the rapidly growing tourism for which the region is so heavily investing. The best part is that I got there early enough to get a final foot massage. What a civilized place!
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